So which team is the most hated in football? The Cowboys? The Raiders?
Here is a niche choice: the 1972 Miami Dolphins, who won the Super Bowl to finish 17-0 and have gloated ever since when subsequent teams fall short. The Dolphins, led by NFL luminaries like head coach Don Shula, QBs Bob Griese and Earl Morrall, FB Larry Csonka, WR Paul Warfield, G Larry Little, LB Nick Buoniconti, and SS Jake Scott, were lauded for decades. The consensus now seems to be that their annual celebration of perfection is getting kind of old — unless you’re a fan, of course.
The thing is, Miami’s way to undefeated glory was paved by a very strange play in NFL history as described in A COACH AT HEART. The Raiders led the Steelers 7-6 with just seconds remaining in a playoff game at frosty Pittsburgh when QB Terry Bradshaw lofted a desperation fourth-down pass. The ball ricocheted after a vicious hit by Raiders S Jack Tatum, and RB Franco Harris caught the carom and ran for an unlikely game-winning touchdown.
So it was the Steelers, suddenly powerful after decades of mediocrity, who traveled to Miami for the AFC Championship Game and not the Raiders.
So would Oakland have defeated Miami? Would the Raiders have finished the Dolphins season with a record of 15-1?
First of all, it should be noted that the Dolphins weren’t exactly dominant through the playoffs. In the first round, they beat Cleveland 20-14. The Browns actually led 14-13 in the fourth quarter thanks to a 27-yard TD pass from QB Mike Phipps to the wonderfully named WR Fair Hooker. The Dolphins won with an 8-yard run by Jim Kiick. Phipps has some A COACH AT HEART connections, too, because he led Purdue to two wins over Stanford.
The next week, facing Pittsburgh instead of Oakland, Miami punched its Super Bowl ticket with a 21-17 victory.
So we’re left with one of the NFL’s great what-ifs. Would the Raiders have upended the exalted Dolphins? This article here suggests that Oakland and Pittsburgh had comparable defenses, while the Raiders were more capable offensively.
One thing that stands out in any analysis of the question is that the AFC championship was going to be determined in Miami — meaning really long road trips for Oakland’s team in back-to-back weeks. Having flown from California to Miami nonstop, I can attest that it is a really long way. The Raiders of those days, with characters like QB Ken Stabler, WR Fred Biletnikoff and LB Phil Villapiano, wouldn’t have cared. The travel takes its toll, nonetheless.
Here are a few other interesting points, as reported by ESPN: the Dolphins didn’t play a game against a team with a winning record at the time for the entire regular season, had the third-easiest schedule among modern-day teams because only two opponents finished with a winning mark, and were without Griese for most of the year while he mended a broken leg. Griese, though, had to sub for Morrall against the Steelers in order to pull out the victory.
The Raiders had their own questions at quarterback as Stabler was pushing to take over from veteran starter Daryle Lamonica, and replaced him in the second half of the Immaculate Reception game to lead a drive that resulted in their only touchdown.
Both teams had Hall of Famers and perennial All-Pros along the offensive line, with Art Shell, Gene Upshaw and Jim Otto anchoring a tremendous left side for the Raiders, and Bob Kuechenberg and Jim Langer joining Little for the Dolphins.
While Oakland had Biletnikoff, Mike Siani on the other side was a rookie, though a productive one. The Raiders lack of WR depth was such that I felt comfortable as an author inserting the fictional George Steele onto the playoff roster for A COACH AT HEART. Miami offered not just Warfield but the extremely productive Howard Twilley as a pass-catcher. The Raiders made up for it with Raymond Chester at tight end.
The strength of both teams on defense was the secondary, with Tatum joined by George Atkinson at safety for the Raiders, along with the outstanding Willie Brown at corner. CBs Curtis Johnson and Tim Foley were starters for the Dolphins for eight and seven years, respectively, and Dick Anderson made three Pro Bowls beside Scott as safety.
The bottom line is the two teams were an even match. The Raiders might have been slightly better at quarterback, the Dolphins a half-notch up at running back. It could be that either team might have won the 1972 AFC title on a given day.
Perhaps the best answer to the question would come the following season. The Dolphins were arguably a better team in 1973, beating some good teams in the regular season and routing all three playoff opponents. This is despite losing twice in the regular-season. The team that ended the Dolphins winning streak at 18 games?
The Raiders, who got four field goals from George Blanda to win 12-7 in Oakland. Yes, different season and location, but it makes you wonder.